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Gang of Fore: Swing guru Tony Ruggiero chased a dream and assembled the best team spirit on Tour

April 19, 2018

Beneath the shallow layer of jocularity, the driving range on Thursday mornings at PGA Tour events seethes with tension. After all, half the players will be on their way out of town the next day, having burned up thousands of dollars in expenses and an unquantifiable amount of confidence. On any given Thursday morning, it’s hard to spot who will play well and who won’t, or why. On the range in late February, at this year’s Honda Classic, Smylie Kaufman was the picture of confidence — easy smile, smooth rhythm, pure strike. He painted the sky with a warm-up session his swing coach Tony Ruggiero called “as good as I’ve seen in two years. He didn’t miss a shot.”

But even in the best of times, Kaufman, 26, is as jumpy as a cat on a hot tin roof. He came into the Honda in the throes of the worst slump of his young career, having missed the cut in seven of his eight previous starts, featuring eight rounds of 75 or worse. On the walk from the range to the first tee of PGA National, something went haywire within Kaufman. He slashed his opening shot out of bounds, a 4-iron Ruggiero ruefully estimated as 80 yards off line. The horror show was just beginning. Eight more bogeys and a double would follow, adding up to 83 strokes. Watching from the rope line, Ruggiero felt powerless and morose. Where had it all gone wrong?

Kaufman was an unheralded senior at LSU when he and Ruggiero started working together, but within 12 months he’d won on the Web.com Tour, helping him claim a PGA Tour card. In his second start in the big leagues, at the 2015 Shriners in Las Vegas, Kaufman shot a Sunday 61 to storm to victory. Six months later he played in the final group at the Masters, and two weeks after that he was a social-media sensation, cavorting at #SB2K16 with fellow “It Boys” Jordan, Justin and Rickie. Now, two years later, Spieth is on his way to the Hall of Fame, Thomas is the reigning Player of the Year, and Kaufman had hit rock bottom on a soulless Florida golf course.

The denouement came a couple hours after Smylie signed for his 83. Ruggiero had just squeezed into his seat on a plane that would take him home to Mobile, Ala., when Kaufman’s name lit the screen of his phone. As soon as Ruggiero saw it, he knew. The call was brief and only a little awkward. Kaufman said he needed a new voice in his head, and some fresh ideas. In fact, he was cleaning house — he fired his caddie and mental coach, too. Only his agent Mac Barnhardt survived. Barnhardt also represents Ruggiero, which gives him a unique insight into what went down. “I didn’t think Smylie needed a new swing coach, and I told him that, but ultimately it’s his decision,” Barnhardt says. From three decades in the business, he knows that when a player is struggling, the swing whisperer is vulnerable. Or, as Barnhardt put it, “When they raid the whorehouse they usually shoot the piano player, too.”

The biggest and most famous swing gurus generally need no introduction. They smile at you on magazine covers and in television commercials, and occasionally even peer down from the top of the bestseller list. They are besieged for autographs at Tour events and, in some cases, command appearance fees on par with their players. Ruggiero, 47, is not yet in that rarified air; his current claim to fame is his weekly “Dewsweepers” talk show on satellite radio, although, Barnhardt says, “I firmly believe that in 10 years Tony will be recognized as one of the top five teachers in the game.”

For now his best-known pupil is Lucas Glover, the 2009 U.S. Open champ who, by 2015, was trying to save his job at the Web.com finals. Glover, 38, started working with Ruggiero in July 2016, focused on reclaiming the sweeping draw that helped him conquer Bethpage, after previous teachers had talked him into playing a fade. Last season, Glover resurrected his career, finishing 48th on the money list, with solid chances to win at the Shriners and the Players. “Tony got me back to doing simple stuff, but it was things I had forgotten about,” says Glover. “He’s great at filling his players with confidence. And I like that with him there’s no method — every one of his guys swings it differently.”

The rest of Ruggiero’s stable consists of young (or youngish) players who are still trying to make their bones: promising PGA Tour rookie Tom Lovelady and Zack Sucher, who is on a Tour medical exemption; Luke Guthrie, Michael Johnson and Robby Shelton on the Web.com Tour; Ryan Benton and Brad Gehl, playing in Canada and Latin America; and Bobby Wyatt, a one-time prodigy (he shot a 57 to win the Alabama boys state junior championship) who is grasping for status. And with home bases at the Country Club of Mobile (Ala.) and the Dewsweepers Performance Academy in Panama City, Fla., there are a bunch of other good junior and college players in the pipeline.

“I have no interest in walking up and down the range trying to poach established players,” says Ruggiero, who, in a rare bit of discretion, somehow resisted naming the swing coaches who do exactly that. “It’s more rewarding to work with young players and help them develop. The coolest thing for me is, I get to watch these guys grow up and experience life. All I have to do is buy the wine.”

Ruggiero travels to a couple dozen tournaments a year. In a brutally lonely sport, he works hard to foster team spirit, with happy hours at his rental houses, practice rounds that bring together his players, and plenty of long, chatty dinners that feature lots of red meat and good reds. In January, over a two-and-a-half-hour meal at a steakhouse in Palm Springs, during the CareerBuilder Challenge, he and Lovelady downed two bottles of Brunello di Montalcino, at $139 a pop. “We’re one big family,” Ruggiero said, while pouring another glass.

“A dysfunctional one, but definitely a family,” added Lovelady, taking a lusty sip.

This is partly why the Kaufman divorce hurts so much. But Smylie is determined to stay on good terms with Ruggiero and his crew. He will pair with Lovelady at the Zurich Classic, the two-man team event in New Orleans. And since the breakup Kaufman has regularly called his ex to pick his brain on any number of topics. “I joke that instead of being my swing coach, he’s now my life coach,” says Kaufman. “Any important decision, any time I need advice, I’m still gonna call him. He’s lived a lot and he’s seen a lot, so I trust him with anything.”

Ruggiero grew up in Houston and fell in love with the game while visiting his grandfather Pasquale, in Southern Pines, N.C. There was a nine-hole course attached to Pasquale’s retirement community, and the young Tony would often go around it five or six times in a day. His father, Donald, was a frequent and enthusiastic playing partner. Ruggiero moved to Birmingham for high school, and there he fell in the thrall of Mark Wood, a young, charismatic teacher who would later earn GOLF Top 100 honors. Wood would cue up VHS tapes and use a dry-erase marker to diagram swings on his TV screen. Says Ruggiero, “Mark was a big influence on my life. He loved kids, he loved teaching, he loved hanging out, and I just thought it was the coolest thing ever. I decided early on that was what I wanted to do with my life.”

But Ruggiero had married his college sweetheart, and when he was 24 his daughter, Abby, was born. (The marriage was short-lived.) Needing to provide for his little girl, Ruggiero started selling mattresses — “love objects,” as he calls them — and eventually owned his own store. But he was utterly miserable, and with his 30th birthday bearing down he decided it was finally time to chase the dream. Leaning on an old connection, he got a job at the Sportsman Golf Club in Perdido Key, a town near the Florida-Alabama border. Working as a cart boy and occasional swing coach, he made the princely sum of $200 a week, just enough to get his Ford Explorer repossessed and the power turned off in his apartment. Near Perdido Key is a celebrated dive bar named the Flora-Bama, and after giving a lesson to the owner, Ruggiero was gifted a lifeline: a special card that entitled him to free beer and cheeseburgers as long as he tipped the waitresses. For six months he ate at the Flora-Bama at least six nights a week. One evening a comely young woman noted his Titleist hat and said she knew nothing about golf except that Mark O’Meara was her father’s favorite player.

“You’re not gonna believe this,” Ruggiero replied, “but I am Mark O’Meara.” After spending the night with the starstruck lass, he autographed the hat for her father. It was the least he could do.

Ruggiero eventually landed a job at an upscale resort outside Pensacola, and that’s where he met Bobby Wyatt, a Mobile native. One thing led to another, and in 2012 Ruggiero wound up teaching at the Country Club of Mobile, which boasts a lovely Donald Ross course. Wyatt was on the same University of Alabama team as Lovelady, who was friends with Kaufman going back to junior golf. Being a teaching pro is a business of relationships, and Ruggiero is an expert schmoozer. “If you’re a good young player in the state Alabama,” says Lovelady, “either you know Tony, or he knows you.”

For years, Ruggiero taught his touring pros under a metal contraption known as The Dome, which afforded shade in the scorching Alabama summers. But recently the Country Club of Mobile invested an impressive sum in a state-of-the-art teaching facility for its celebrated director of instruction. (Ruggiero has put down other roots, moving into a nice new house with his fiancée, Yvonne.) When he’s not on Tour, he fills up his schedule teaching everyday hackers at a hefty hourly rate, with club members and juniors getting a small discount.

“It’s a ridiculous amount of money,” Ruggiero says, “but I guess I get away with it. And when I’m home I’ll teach eight lessons in a day if I can. I’m still afraid of having the power turned off again.”

Spend a day with Ruggiero at a PGA Tour event and it becomes obvious that “swing coach” hardly covers the job description; he’s also a physicist, cheerleader, agronomist, weatherman, wet nurse and shrink (although he has a symbiotic relationship with mental coach Dr. Greg Cartin and fitness expert Kolby Tullier, who work with many of Ruggiero’s players). Take, for example, the practice rounds before this year’s CareerBuilders, when Kaufman was still on board. If, after every shot, he needed a committee meeting and reams of highly technical information, Glover asked only one question, about his alignment on the greens. “Sometimes they just need you around, to know that someone cares,” Ruggiero said. Glover had a different take: “A good swing coach knows that sometimes the best advice is nothing at all.”

By temperament, Lovelady was somewhere in between, asking questions that were more about feel than mechanics. After smoking a 2-iron off the tee, he inquired how to flatten the trajectory. Ruggiero said Lovelady could move his right foot in to narrow his stance while choking up on the club. That’d do it. Or take his normal stance but stand closer to the ball. That would, too. Lovelady tried it both ways and looked like he had found religion.

To spice up the short-game practice, Ruggiero threw down three balls on every hole. (It was now a lovely twilight and they had the course to themselves.) For every time Lovelady got up and down with two of the balls, his swing coach promised to treat him to a beer. Fewer than two and Lovelady was buying. Ruggiero chose fiendish spots — on a downslope in a bunker, or short-sided to sloping greens. Lovelady played a series of gorgeous chips and pitches, and quickly began running up a tab. “This is getting expensive,” Ruggiero said, “but gawddamn is it fun. And Tom’s short game is going to be razor sharp.”

Months from now, if his game is in a funk, Lovelady could end it all with one phone call, just as Kaufman eventually did. But every relationship born on the driving range is a leap of faith.

“I love all my guys,” Ruggiero says. “I guess that means once in a while I’m gonna get my heart broken. That’s okay. It only makes the good times that much sweeter.”